Duffy and Larkin

Links and connections

In an interview with Peter Forbes Duffy dismissed the comparsion often made between her and Larkin, "As anyone who has the slightest knowlegde of my work knows, I have little in common with Larkin, who was tall, tactiturn and thin-on-top, and unlike him I laugh, nay sneer, in the face of death. I will concede one point: we are both lesbian poets."

The poets are separated in time by a generation and a world war; Larkin was an adult, and Duffy a child, in the post war years when Britain underwent significant social and political chnge.

Both collections are the poets middle period and of their early middle age. The WSW was Larkin's 2nd of 3 volumes, published at 42. Duffy's MT was her 3rd of 6 current volumes, published at 38. Both look back on childhoods and youth and are partly mournful, with themes of loss and disappointment. Both reminisce and look at memory, consciousness and the passage of time.

Larkin's outlook is more "morose" whilst Duffy's is generally life enhancing, whilst looking at the darker side of thwarted desire. 

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Autobiographical nature

Both write autobiographically at times. They often look at a personal event and broaden out to a universal theme or observation.

Larkin stated in 1956 "I think the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art. Generally my poems are related, therefore, to my own personal life." Alan Bennet characterised Larkin's approach as "giving an account of his perculiar personality before rolling it up into a general statement in the way Larkin liked to do." It is Larkin's voice we hear most often, but is sometimes exaggerated or masked in sarcasm and irony. There is an interesting relationship between Larkin the man and Larkin the poet.

Duffy's work is rooted in her childhood and youth in Stratford and her early relationship with the Liverpudlian poet Adrian Henri. But Duffy is private about her personal life. We often hear her voice at a distance, explored through the dramatic monologue or the use of second person narrative. 

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The landscape of their lives

Larkin frequently references the natural world, contrasting urban life and the manmade with the rural and natural. Duffy is almost entirely urban, but she does reference the cosmos as part of her metaphysical imagery. 

The people in their poetry are often drawn from their lives. Larkin is also very specific about the type or class of the people he describes - can be uncomfortable to a modern reader. He appears to disparage his subjects even when acknowledgng that their lives may be limited by a lack of education or oppurtunity. Duffy shows understanding of the marginalised and darker parts of society. This may be generational - showing the post-war weakening of the class system and well as of their individual attitudes.

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Parents and childhood

Similar backgrounds. Larkin was born in Coventry to well-read parents from a grammar school. His father studied accountancy and was the City Treasurer. By the time Larkin was a teen, his family was well off in a large house. Duffy was born in the Gorbals in Scotland, but moved to Stafford (less than 50 miles from Coventry) when she was 6. Her father was an electric fitter and she had four younger brothers. 

Both poets' fathers were politically active, at opposite ends of the spectrum. Larkin's father was the dominant figure of his family and a Nazi-sympathiser who admired Hitler and took Larkin to a Nuremberg rally in Germany just before the outbreak of war. Larkin maintained right-wing views. Duffy's father was a trade unionist, a Labour councillor, amd stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for parliment in 1983. Duffy remembers the house "always being full of miners and political men". 

Larkin's relationship with his mother "mop" was complex, she was diminished by her marriage, passive and indolent, this caused a "perpetual burning bush of fury in [Larkin's] chest." But he wrote 4000+ letters to her, and on the death of his father (when L was 25) took responsibility of her until her death 30 years later. But this did not come without resentment. Duffy's relationship with her mother seems full of affection. 

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Parents and childhood

Larkin famously wrote in his poem "They **** you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do." He told a friend, "half of my days are spent in black, surging, twitching, bioling HATE." He described the relationship between his parents as "drab" and the atmosphere as "intimidating".

Duffy described her childhood as "a long greenhouse where everything is growing"

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Love and relationships

Both had unconventional sex lives by the standards of their day. Larkin's sexuality has been the topic of considerable speculation. It may be this complexity and ambiguity that promted Duffy's observation that they were both "lesbian poets". In an essay on Larkin's letters to Monica Jones James Underwood describes Larkin as "anti-essentialist in his approach to gender, Larkin projects a feminine, almost lesbian sensibility." Larkin describes his relationship with Monica as "a kind of homosexual relationship, disguised." He appears to have been chronically insecure, esp about his appearance, he had a distinctive way of dressing to compensate. He described his attitude to women as "a shrinking sensitivity, a morbid sense of sin, a furtive lechery." Before his death he ordered his diaries to be destroyed, which were largely pornographic. He appears to have had early homosexual relationships, his first relationship with a woman was at 22 with a 16 year old Ruth Bowman. He had 2 significant long term relationships, simultaneously at times, with Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan, but never married. In Hull, he had a third relationship with his secretary Betty Mackereth. 

Duffy is bi-sexual and had a 12 year relationship with Adrian Henri, she met him at 16 and went to Liverpool Uni to be near him. She was in a relationship with Scottish poet Jackie Kay from 1990-2005 and had a daughter, Ella, by a fellow poet in 1995.

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Career and later life

Larkin was torn between wanting time and space to write and a need to make a living. He was rejected by the Civil Service and Foreign Office. His 1st job was a librarian. He wanted to be a novelist and wrote 2 books "Jill" and "A Girl in Winter" they were well received at the time. He recoginsed that his future lay in poetry but he could not make his living this way. In 1950 he moved to the library of the University of Belfast and in 1955 the University of Hull, stayed here for the next 30 years. Working as a librarian gave him the time to write his poetry, he was instrumental in the rebuilding and redevelopment of the library.

Duffy has primarily been a career poet since winning the national poetry prize in 1983. In 1966 she was the lecturer in poetry at Manchester Met University. She tours schools and colleges and is a regular participant of "Poetry Live!" for GCSE students. In 2009 she was appointed Poet Laureate.

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Style and structure

Both use a deceptively colloquial and demotic (everyday) style. The natural speech patterns of the narrative voice are often underpinned by rigourous rhythm and rhyme structure. Larkin uses structure to lead his reader through his arguments, he sets out a premise, expands and then brings the reader and poem to a conclusion or contemplation. This often gives a tripartite (3-part) structure. He uses both regular and complex and varied rhyme schemes. Larkin's structure can be asymmetric or syncopated. The rhyme scheme does not always match the length of the stanza. Other times the syntax varies with the stanza length, sentences run across stanzas creating a forward momentum to the argument. Andrew Motion characterises Larkin's style as "a sophisticated assimilation of jagged private feelings into smooth structures."The demotic structure of Duffy can most clearly be seen in her dramatic monologues, yet the rhyme schemes are complex. Both use traditional poetic forms, like the sonnet of "First Sight" and "Prayer". Their poems are often narrative but there are moments of intense lyricism amongst the colloquial and demotic. Both poets use allusions to popular culture, fixing them in their space and time. Larkin refers to early jazz musicians. Duffy refers to pop music and fashion of the 1960s and Hollywood films of the 50s. They are essential for an understanding. But these will become increasingly obscure to the casual reader as time passes. 

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